WASHINGTON — A federal judge held the Environmental Protection Agency in contempt Thursday for destroying computer files during the Clinton administration that had been sought by a conservative legal foundation.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth also ordered the EPA to pay the Landmark Legal Foundation's legal fees and costs because the agency disobeyed his order to preserve the electronic records of former chief Carol Browner.

Lamberth ordered the sanctions because he said the EPA had shown "contumacious conduct" — obstinate resistance to authority.

"This is a major victory for those who believe the EPA has an obligation to comply with the law," said Landmark President Mark Levin.

"The EPA destroyed vast databases that would have revealed the extent to which Carol Browner and other top officials worked with environmental groups to issue last-minute regulations prior to the end of the Clinton administration," he said.

Lamberth declined to hold Browner, EPA officials and U.S. Attorney's Office in contempt.

Lamberth had issued a protective order on Jan. 19, 2001, the day before the Clinton administration ended, instructing the EPA to preserve all documents that might be relevant to a Freedom of Information Act request by Landmark for documents about the agency's contacts with outside groups.

Browner had testified she asked a technician to delete her computer files the same day Lamberth ordered them preserved.

The former EPA administrator said she usually didn't use her computer for work or e-mail, hadn't been notified about the court order, and had wanted to remove some computer games her son had installed on her work computer.

Browner's attorney, Robert Trout, said his client had wanted to ensure her work computer was appropriately formatted for her successor in the Bush administration.

"As we've made clear from the outset, and as the facts plainly showed, there was never any basis whatsoever for Landmark's motion for contempt as to Ms. Browner," he said.

The EPA later acknowledged it had wiped clean the computer files from Browner and other top staff despite Lamberth's order.

The agency disclosed that in February and March 2001, the computer hard drives of several Clinton-era EPA officials had been reformatted, and between Jan. 19 and late April 2001, the e-mail backup tapes for their work computers — which are normally preserved for 90 days — had been erased and reused.

Lamberth noted the EPA had made some "too-little too-late efforts" to obey his order, including an EPA inspector general's investigation that succeeded in recovering some material from the reformatted hard drives. But the judge said a contempt finding was appropriate to show wrongdoing and prevent similar behavior in the future.